Wisconsin providing drinking water to French Island residents during PFAS investigation

    Foam products used by firefighters contain PFAS. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

    The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other state agencies are working to provide bottled water to residents of French Island with private drinking wells that may be contaminated with harmful “forever chemicals.”

    The island has 1,200 private wells and PFAS chemicals have been found in 180 of them, while other residents await test results. 

    Last week, six semi-truck loads of bottled water were donated to members of the community by Kwik Trip and Hy-Vee, providing drinking water to nearly 1,000 residents of the island, according to a news release

    The DNR is working with water treatment company Culligan to provide residents with five-gallon jugs of clean water.  

    French Island sits across the Black River from the City of La Crosse. The La Crosse Regional Airport is on the northern part of the island while the Town of Campbell and its 4,300 residents are on the southern part. 

    The airport is the likely reason PFAS have been found in drinking water across the island because the chemicals are used in firefighting foam commonly used to train and respond to airplane crashes. 

    The City of La Crosse is providing water to some of the island’s residents but has refused to give water to others. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat directed city workers not to provide bottled water to residents who get water from wells that were contaminated with PFAS but at a levels lower than 20 parts per trillion — despite a recommendation from the DNR not to do so.

    The Wisconsin Department of Health Services declared a drinking water advisory for the island last week, enabling the DNR to give people clean water while additional wells are tested. 

    PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals used in a variety of industries for decades that do not break down in the environment. Long term exposure to the chemicals can lead to harmful effects in humans.

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.